Germany’s World Cup win Sunday night was thrilling. But I can’t stop thinking of its shocking 7-1 defeat of Brazil in the semifinals last week.
That game showed the German team’s remarkable ability to anticipate where the Brazilian players were heading and to redirect the ball around them. The Germans rarely had a direct path to the goal. Instead, stars like Miroslav Klose and Toni Kroos traded passes with their teammates—sending the ball laterally, or even behind them—then pivoted to shoot into the net, beyond the reach of the diving Brazilian goalkeeper.
The skill of pivoting applies in business, too — and not only for a quick shot on goal. Firms need to be agile to adapt to changing circumstances and to combat new opponents. Similarly, successful individuals transition from one role to another using pivots that leverage their past and open up moves in new directions.
As in soccer, the key to the pivot is to keep one metaphorical “foot” planted on the ground as you set up for your next goal. Very few companies — or people — realize the benefits expected from radical transformations, in which they decide to alter everything about themselves. To be successful, major changes should be rooted in existing core competencies and strong values. In my early days at McKinsey, consultants described this dynamic tension in terms of ‘exploiting’ current strengths and ‘exploring’ new opportunities. In Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies, authors Jim Collins and Jerry Porras describe the dual business mantras of “preserve the core” and “stimulate progress,” which they illustrate with a black-and-white yin yang symbol: You can’t have one without the other.
What does this look like in practice? To name one example, Boeing’s commitment to “being on the leading edge of aviation” will remain its fundamental focus, but that doesn’t mean it has to build jumbo jets forever. Indeed, the company has already outsourced the manufacture of large numbers of aerospace parts for its jets — often raising the ire of critics — and has entirely ceded the market for smaller passenger jets to others. It prefers to shepherd the growth of its defense, space & security business, which will account for one third of its revenues this year.
Netflix is another company that successfully pivoted, though not without somestumbles along the way. The core of Netflix’s business is delivering great movies and TV shows to its customers. Over time, its strategy has shifted from primarily sending DVDs through the mail to providing streaming content — and, more recently, developing original programming like “House of Cards,” which won the first Emmys for a non-TV network last fall. Blockbuster, by contrast, stuck too long to checking out VHS tapes and DVDs. Now it’s history.
What about individuals? There are times when you climb a career ladder in a straightforward way – moving towards your goals without threat of being tackled by an opponent or forced to change direction. In sales, you may have started by working cold calls and progressed to relationship management. In consulting, you may have begun with analysis and moved on to design a study or diagnose of your client’s needs. But pressures from outside your organization, including shifts in technology, regulations, customer preferences, or competitors can introduce the need for a more dynamic forward progression. Your forward motion using the skill set you’ve been building for years may be blocked. A few of the most common reasons you’ll need to consider changing course follow:
If you find yourself in this position, it may be tempting to start over completely, going back to school in an entirely different field or renouncing the value of your hard won job experience. Don’t overreact. You’ll be wasting time and money by investing too much in building a new base while discarding valuable career assets.
This is the time to pivot. When you pivot, you capitalize on your core strengths to maneuver around obstacles by leveraging your existing strengths to pursue a new challenge or business opportunity.
Here’s how it works, with examples of those who have done it successfully:
Trish Gorman wrote this article for Forbes.com